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Rather's doubters unmoved

Dan Rather's forceful defense last Friday of a CBS News story about gaps in President Bush's service in the Air National Guard does not appear to have assuaged those who doubt its accuracy.

The report relied upon documents whose authenticity was immediately challenged by Bush supporters. It also threw professional document analysts into an uproar and sparked intense debate among journalists about how CBS News handled both the report, which aired last Wednesday on 60 Minutes, and the ensuing furor.

"What steps did they use to authenticate the documents?" asked Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter for ABC News. "It's good reporting to show off how much you know."

In Wednesday's broadcast about Bush's military service, for which Rather served as the on-air correspondent, three main sources were cited:

  • An interview with former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes. The long-time politician said that at the behest of a friend of Bush's father (then a congressman), he had pulled strings to ensure that Bush received a slot in the Air National Guard in 1968 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
  • Newly disclosed documents from Bush's squad commander in the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died in 1984. In what CBS has characterized as coming from a "personal file," Killian described rebuking and suspending Lt. Bush from flight status in 1972 because he had refused a physical. In addition, in a memo dated 1973, Killian complained about being pressured by superiors to treat Bush lightly, CBS reported.
  • An interview with Robert Strong, an administrative officer with the guard unit and a colleague of Killian's. Strong said the memos reflected Killian's thinking and the politicized atmosphere of the time. On the air Wednesday, Rather said CBS News had the memos examined. "We consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic," he said. However, 60 Minutes did not say how it obtained the memos - and did not characterize its source in any way. (The White House has not challenged the validity of the documents, but aides have said Bush's honorable discharge proves he fulfilled his obligations. ) Any news organization broadcasting or publishing potentially highly charged reports - particularly in an election year - must make sure the information is accurate and that the public understands why it can be believed, said experienced reporters. "That's the kind of thing that you really have to do when you have a controversial topic - endless shoe-leather [reporting]," said Donald L. Barlett, half of a prize-winning investigative reporting team for Time magazine. "That kind of work just takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts." There is a particularly heavy responsibility for news organizations that rely upon anonymous sources, reporters said. Typically, any news organization that grants anonymity to a source will then go to exceptional lengths to keep that promise. "We're going to protect our source, every way we can," CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said yesterday. But the genesis of the information can provide valuable clues in evaluating its worth. "If this came from somebody who was inside the Pentagon records center and said, 'Here's some documents,' then it's better than somebody who's a partisan Democrat," said Ross of ABC. "Your level of skepticism would rise, the more a person has to gain." "I've never thought that simply relying on a source got you off the hook for your own credibility," said Brooks Jackson, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and CNN. Jackson now runs FactCheck.org, a Web site dedicated to reviewing claims made by politicians. According to Genelius, CBS stands by the story. The network interviewed "several" handwriting and documents experts on the record to ensure the memos' validity before last Wednesday's broadcast. None was interviewed in the Wednesday report. One was described on air to viewers - but not until last Friday when Rather was defending the network. Barlett of Time said yesterday that he and his partner, James B. Steele, had two rules of thumb when evaluating documents of uncertain provenance. First, he said, they consult, at minimum, three or four analysts with expertise in typewriting or handwriting. Second, they would not consider documents that were "10th generation" - that is, photocopied so many times that they could not be credibly examined. Marcel Matley, the analyst who was interviewed by Rather during Friday's broadcast, said that many who were skeptical of the validity of the Killian memos were led astray because they relied upon reproduced copies. But Rather acknowledged Friday that his network also was using copies, not originals, of the documents. "That's a real issue," Barlett said. Authenticating documents is not an academic exercise. Last year, the Christian Science Monitor apologized to a British Member of Parliament after it published a story based upon falsified papers. The story had alleged that the lawmaker had profited from humanitarian efforts to aid Iraqi civilians. And in 1997, ABC News planned a report based on documents that seemed to show that Marilyn Monroe had been paid to keep quiet about an affair with President John F. Kennedy. Experts hired by the network exposed the papers, provided by a consultant paid to help ABC, as a fraud. "Any time an investigative news operation puts something out like that, they're putting their own credibility behind it," said longtime investigative journalist Jackson. "It doesn't look good for CBS - at least at the moment."
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